I grew up in a family of story tellers and talkers. They’re known for chatting, for saying goodbye, and then taking 45 minutes to make it out the door. It’s what they’ve always done, tales of triumph and failure the narrative patches holding the pieces of the family quilt together.
This skill, then, should come naturally to me. That’s why an exchange with my daughter over a game of Uno unsettled me.
“I used to play Uno with my Papa,” I told Wren. “He’s the one who taught me how to play.”
“Like your Pappy. He was my grandfather.”
“Why have I never met him?” she asked.
“He died when I was your age.”
She looked sad, and I felt my stomach drop like an elevator on free fall. My grandfather was one of the biggest characters in my life, one of the most important people who played a role in my formative years and beyond. His death leveled me, and my nine-year-old daughter had no idea who he was. I’d never shown her pictures or told her stories.
His death was followed closely by the collapse of my parents’ marriage and the rearranging of family members that felt like tectonic plates shifting without end. I buried the pain, and in the process, I buried the memories.
I did exactly the opposite of what I should have done if my goal was to raise emotionally healthy children.
The importance of the narrative
My motive for keeping my family’s history quiet might have been to protect my kids from the hurt and confusion of death and divorce, or it might have been to avoid sharing my own mistakes and missteps from the past. Whatever the reason, it was the wrong choice. Researchers agree that children need to know that they have a place in a bigger story than their own.
Children who have what is called an intergenerational identity feel more in control of their lives, according to research by Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush from Emory University. Knowing where they fit in a story also seems to paint a rosier view of the family overall, since children in the study who knew the most about their families viewed their family units in a more positive light.
Telling our kids family stories may even lower the chances of anxiety and depression, even when world events stand to trigger a negative response. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush followed up with the kids who had participated in their study only months before. Those who knew they had a place in a larger family story were more resilient than those who scored low on what they knew about their families. An intergenerational identity helped serve as a shield between these kids and catastrophe.
There’s also the benefit of having kids who are less likely to become narcissist. Being a part of a bigger story…